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Panetta: Syria no-fly zone "not on the front burner"

(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says plans to set up a no-fly zone over parts of Syria are "not on the front burner," despite persistent calls from rebel forces there that they need the added protection from escalating regime air strikes.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Panetta said he is confident the U.S. could successfully enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, but doing so would require a "major, major policy decision" that has not yet been made.

"We have planned for a number of contingencies that could take place and one of those possible contingencies is developing a no-fly zone. But we've also pointed out difficulties in being able to implement that," Panetta said. "It's not on the front burner as far as I know."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that Washington and Turkey are discussing a range of steps, including a no-fly zone over some parts of Syria. Rebel leaders have expressed frustration that the United States has limited its assistance to non-lethal aid.

The U.S. and its NATO allies successfully enforced a no-fly zone over Libya last year, as rebels there made gains and eventually ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Syria, however, has relatively modern air defenses that are far more plentiful and sophisticated than those in Libya. Syria buys its arms from Russia and is backed in its efforts to tamp down the rebels by Iran.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad's military has significantly stepped up aerial attacks in recent weeks, using missile strikes to push back opposition forces in key fronts such as Aleppo. Civil war has spread across the country, and activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad began in March 2011.

Currently, Panetta said, the U.S. is focused on ensuring chemical and biological weapons there are secure and on providing humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to the rebels as international negotiations to try and decide a political solution to the crisis remain mired at the United Nations by the opposing views of Syria's allies Russia and China, and Assad's foes in Washington, Europe and the Middle East.

Panetta's remarks come just two days after the head of Syria's main opposition group in exile called for international powers to impose a no-fly zone in border areas to protect civilians who are coming under increasingly intense attacks by regime warplanes and helicopters.

The president of the Syrian National Council, Abdelbaset Sieda, told The Associated Press that such a move by the international community would show Assad's regime that his opponents around the world are serious.

CBS News correspondent Charles D'Agata spent about a week with rebel fighters on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the current epicenter of the fighting, earlier in August.

They also made it clear, according to D'Agata, that a no-fly zone to keep Assad's helicopters and warplanes at bay was the most pressing of their requests to the international community, along with more weaponry.

Credible reports began surfacing earlier this month that rebels fighting in and around Aleppo had acquired shoulder-fired surface to air missile launchers, known as SAM 7 systems, and on Monday, rebel forces claimed to have shot down their first Syrian warplane and captured its pilot.

An image from an amateur video released by the Shaam News Network purports to show Syrian Pilot Colonel Rafik Mohammed Suleiman being interrogated by rebel officers after his Soviet-made MiG warplane was apparently hit by ground fire over Deir el-Zour province, an area near the Iraqi border, Syria, Monday Aug. 13, 2012.
An image from an amateur video released by the Shaam News Network purports to show Syrian Pilot Colonel Rafik Mohammed Suleiman being interrogated by rebel officers after his Soviet-made MiG warplane was allegedly hit by ground fire over Deir el-Zour province, an area near the Iraqi border, Syria, Aug. 13, 2012. AP

The Assad regime denied the plane had been shot down, saying it crashed after a technical problem. While the rebels' claim could not be verified, a video they posted online shows a jet catching on fire and crashing to the ground. A man, said by the rebels to be the pilot, then reads a statement in captivity urging Syrian troops to defect. His identity could not be independently verified, and both the rebels and the Assad regime have presented misinformation in a bid to win the propaganda war fueling the violence in the country.

Panetta, 74, spoke at length on a number of topics during the AP interview in his Pentagon office, with his golden retriever, Bravo, lying at his side and playing with a red stuffed lobster toy.

Panetta also revealed that Pakistan has told U.S. military officials that it plans to launch combat operations against Taliban militants soon in a tribal area near the Afghan border. The North Waziristan region serves as a haven for leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.

Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, discussed the planned operation with the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, Panetta said, adding that he understands that it will begin in the "near future."

Touching on another major U.S. frustration in Afghanistan, Panetta said the accelerating pattern of attacks on American and coalition troops by Afghan army and police members is a sign that the Taliban is grasping for success. But he added that U.S. military commanders say such attacks still remain "sporadic" and not a long-term trend.

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He argued that the Afghan insider attacks, in which numerous Afghan troops have turned their guns on coalition forces, may reflect efforts by the Taliban to use unconventional tactics against a coalition force that it cannot defeat on the battlefield.

In other comments, Panetta said the U.S. is providing additional military assistance to peacekeeping forces in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in order to strengthen security in the region. But he said that so far the Pentagon has not moved to send additional U.S. troops to the Sinai. A truck-mounted tracking system sent to the Sinai will allow troops to follow friendly forces.

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"We just want to make sure that we know how those forces are deployed in order to ensure that we can more effectively go after those terrorists that would try to create an incident or terrorist act," Panetta said.

Currently the U.S. has about 800 troops in the Sinai as part of an international peacekeeping force. Panetta did not rule out sending more U.S. forces to the Sinai, but said America is working closely with Egyptian leaders "to determine what additional help they may need in order to ensure that that area is secured."

Just over a week ago, masked militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel, then burst through a security fence into Israel. Israel detected the infiltration and launched an air strike to stop the assault.

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